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Paying the way 

Conflict of interest raised in charter-school approval

Paying the way Four school-board members who recently backed a new charter school in Colorado Springs School District 11 had accepted from $7,000 to $23,000 each in campaign contributions from a handful of prominent school-choice proponents, one of whom serves on the board of the charter school they approved last week.

According to campaign-finance reports, board president Sandy Shakes, Vice President Craig Cox and Treasurer Eric Christen each took $11,000 in contributions from local developer Steve Schuck during their election campaigns in the fall. Board Secretary Willie Breazell also received $4,000 from Schuck.

They then turned around and voted, on Dec. 17, to approve the Life Skills charter school, of which Schuck is a board member.

Board member Mary Wierman, who received no contributions from Schuck, also backed the school, while Karen Teja opposed it. Board member David Linebaugh did not vote.

Two of the members who supported the school said Schuck's contributions played no role in their decision.

"It had nothing to do with my vote for his school," Cox said.

Shakes said she was barely even aware that Schuck was on the charter school's board. "I have not ever spoken with Mr. Schuck about it," she said.

Concerns aired

And District 11 spokeswoman Elaine Naleski said that according to the district's attorneys, the vote did not represent any legal conflict of interest.

But fellow board member Teja said the vote "absolutely" raises questions among the public about the board's integrity.

"I have gotten calls on that, from people saying, 'I'm concerned; it looks like they bought the charter school,'" Teja said. "I would hope that I could make the assumption that no deals were made, that [the donors] did not say, 'I'll give you money to support my charter school.' ... But it does raise a moral question."

Teja said she opposed the school mainly for financial reasons, noting that the district will pay for the charter's operations.

Wierman said she voted for the school because she was impressed by presentations from the charter's other board members, including Colorado Springs Police Chief Luis Velez.

Still, Wierman said she shared Teja's apprehensions about fellow board members having been bankrolled by Schuck. "I did have concerns about that, and some of the public brought it up, too," Wierman said.

Cox and Shakes, meanwhile, both pointed out that in the past, board members who have taken campaign contributions from teacher's unions have supported a charter school run by the Colorado Springs Education Association.

Breazell, Christen and Linebaugh did not return calls seeking comment as of press time.

Money from Denver

According to its charter, Life Skills will target highschool drop-outs and help them earn diplomas. While a board of local community leaders will oversee the school, day-to-day operations will be handled by White Hat Management, an Ohio for-profit corporation that operates charter schools in several states.

White Hat's chairman, David Brennan, serves alongside Schuck on the board of Children First America, a national school-choice advocacy group. Also on that organization's board is Alex Cranberg, a Denver oilman who gave the second-largest amount of campaign contributions to Shakes, Cox and Christen.

According to reports, the three received between $6,500 and $8,500 each from Cranberg.

Schuck's and Cranberg's contributions were "in-kind" donations, meaning they were not direct cash gifts. The campaign-finance reports do not specify the exact nature of the in-kind contributions.

Schuck himself said he found the suggestion of a conflict of interest "insulting," adding he has no financial interest in the charter school.

"I want to help a bunch of kids who are in trouble, and I make no apologies about that," Schuck said. "What possible gain do I have?"

-- Terje Langeland

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